VAYEITZEI (Genesis, 28:10-32:3) — “How To Say ‘You’re Wrong'”

Polygamy and “Tzores” 

I once saw a picture in National Geographic that struck me as strange.  The article was about life in Utah, and included a picture of a Mormon family. The father posed with his children and their four mothers.  Polygamy, although in violation of state (and currently, Mormon) law, continues to exist in Utah. 

As an Ashkenazic Jew and member of Western Civilization, I find it very difficult to envision the concept of having more than one wife.  Successful polygamy requires a level of “sharing” and cooperation that goes beyond the mores of our culture. It is not a good system. 

That is why Ashkenazic Jewry banned it over a thousand years ago. The Torah has an interesting word for a co-wife.  If two women are married to the same man, how are they related to each other? The Torah calls them “Tzoros,” literally, “pains.” Rachel and Leah shared a husband; Leah was Rachel’s “tzorah” – her source of pain.  When two women have to vie for the attention and love of the same man, it is a painful situation for everyone.

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Rachel was distraught.  Her sister Leah had borne four sons to Jacob, while she remained barren.  The pain was too great to bear.  She confronted her husband: “Give me childrenotherwise I am dead!”  (Genesis, 30:1) 

In her desperation, Rachel had made an inappropriate request.  Rachel’s frustration in turn frustrated her husband: Jacob became furious with Rachel.  He said, “Am I in the place of G-d who is withholding children from you?!” (Ibid, verse 2) 

Part of the job of a spouse is to provide constructive criticism as necessary.  Rachel seemed to be demanding that Jacob give her children.  He corrected her by instructing her to direct her request to G-d instead. 

A simple reading of the text seems to indicate that Rachel was wrong and Jacob was right.  Yet, the Midrash tells us that Jacob was taken to task for his response.  G-d asked him, “Is this the way you respond to someone who is despondent?” 

Note that the Midrash is not defending Rachel’s question.  Apparently, she WAS wrong.  Rather than complaining to her husband, she should have recognized that her infertility was the result of a divine decree.  Rachel should have directed her pleas Heavenward.  Jacob is criticized, not for what he said, but rather, for how he said it. 

Rachel wasn’t asking Jacob to perform a miracle. She was asking him to pray for her. Jacob’s response was that it would be more appropriate for her to pray for herself. (The Talmud tells us that when a sick person prays for his own recovery, G-d listens to that prayer more closely than to the prayers offered by others in his behalf.) They were having a theological debate over whose prayers would be more important. Rachel had her opinion and Jacob had his.  What was the problem?  The problem was, as the Torah tells us, Jacob became furious with Rachel…

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The great rabbi Hillel told a prospective convert that the main message of Judaism is to be sure not to do anything to someone else that we wouldn’t want done to us.  Actually, we shouldn’t stop there.  What if I have a thick skin?  What if I don’t mind if people are harsh in speaking to me?

What’s the matter, we may ask.  Can’t take a joke?  Can’t take a little criticism?  It wouldn’t bother ME if someone spoke to me that way.  Why are you so sensitive? 

Perhaps Jacob, having grown up with a brother who was cruel and abusive, was used to being criticized.  Perhaps, being the totally honest person that he was, Jacob called things as he saw them.  If his wife said something unbecoming, he told her off. 

G-d reprimanded Jacob.  He could have responded with more empathy.  He had asked rhetorically, “Am I in place of G-d?” Rachel was heartbroken.  This was not the time for angry criticism. (Even though she was wrong!) Now was the time for compassion and understanding.  Perhaps a more acceptable response would have been, “I know how upset you must be.  It’s very important for you to pray too.  Let’s pray together.”

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I used to be an elementary school teacher.  A little third grader came over to me with tears in her eyes.  I don’t remember what the trouble was, but I do recall that it was absolutely trivial.  She was crying over a matter of no significance whatsoever.  But she taught me a very important lesson.  To me, the problem was nonsense.  To her, it was an overwhelming crisis.  I could have told her how silly she was being.  That would have upset her even more.  By sharing the pain of her problem, I was able to help her resolve the issue and replace the tears with a smile. 

She actually taught me two important, almost opposite lessons: 

1) The other person’s problems, even if we know them to be inconsequential, are real problems in THEIR eyes, and we should address them as such. Just because something doesn’t bother me, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t bother YOU! 

2) In the major scheme of things, many of the “problems” that WE consider to be insurmountable are, like the school I was teaching in, elementary.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links. 

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FROM THE ARCHIVES 

 “How to Say ‘You’re Wrong’ ” (2009) 

I once saw a picture in National Geographic that struck me as strange.  The article was about life in Utah, and included a picture of a Mormon family. The father posed with his children and their four mothers.  Polygamy, although in violation of state (and currently, Mormon) law, continues to exist in Utah.

As an Ashkenazic Jew and member of Western Civilization, I find it very difficult to envision the concept of having more than one wife.  Successful polygamy requires a level of “sharing” and cooperation that goes beyond the mores of our culture. It is not a good system…  

Read more.

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“Are You My Bride? … Are You SURE??”  (2006)

Jacob came to Haran  (in Iraq) in search of a bride. 

Rachel was the one…  A wedding feast took place and Jacob took his veiled bride home to his tent.  It wasn’t until the next morning that Jacob discovered that he had married the wrong woman!  It was Leah!  He had been had!  His uncle had cheated him!… 

…How did all of this happen?  How did an intelligent man like Jacob allow himself to be hoodwinked by his uncle?  How did Laban pull it off?  And how could Leah participate in this fraud?  And where was Rachel?  Why didn’t she step in and stop the wedding?…  

Read more.

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 “Time to Pray!”  (2005) 

It is well known that religious Jews pray three times a day… But it wasn’t always that way.  Although Davening Mincha (the Afternoon Service) and Maariv (the Evening Service) are very Jewish things to do, Abraham apparently didn’t do those things.  Isaac, quite a religious Jew, didn’t Daven Maariv either.  That was Jacob’s innovation… the morning, afternoon, and evening services were instituted by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob respectively.  We, their children, follow their example… each of the Patriarchs had different experiences that led to each of their prayers… 

Read more.

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 “The Gift of Life” (2003) 

… Jacob cried…His nephew, Eliphaz had confiscated all his possessions…. we find Jacob’s reaction surprising.  After all, isn’t spirituality more important than money?  Don’t we usually view a Tzaddik, a righteous person as one who eschews material possessions?  In fact, Jacob had asked G-d to provide him with …bread to eat and clothing to wear. (Ibid, 28:23) All Jacob desired was the barest of minimums – a shirt on his back and a simple meal.  Why suddenly the tears?…  

Read more.

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“Feeling the Void – Filling the Void” (2002) 

Jacob left Beer-Sheba and he went to Haran. (Genesis, 28:10) 

The Torah doesn’t waste words. Rashi points out that the Torah only had to write Jacob went to Haran. The point of the story is that he was now on his way to Haran to find a wife. Obviously, he had to leave his home in Beer-Sheba in order to get there. What is the point of telling us that Jacob left Beer-Sheba? 

The answer, says Rashi, is that Jacob’s departure from Beer-Sheba was a significant event…  

Read more.

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“To Dream the Impossible Dream” (2000) 

Jacob had a tough life.  …he lived in constant fear that he would some day be killed by his jealous brother, or forced to kill Esau in self-defense…  Laban … tricked him into marrying the wrong woman.  … Jacob negotiated a salary for future work – Laban kept changing the terms …When Jacob and his family finally packed their bags and left, Laban pursued them, hoping to kill Jacob… Rachel was unable to have children and there was friction between the two wives.  …sibling rivalry caused additional grief.  He would eventually suffer the anguish and indignity of his daughter’s abduction and violation by a Canaanite.  Then he had to deal with the ensuing violence committed by his sons against the hometown of his daughter’s attacker.  For twenty years, he thought his beloved son Joseph was dead. 

…Where does one find the strength to deal with such adversity?  How did he manage to continue his life in the face of such pain? … 

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.TorahTalk.org. Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain in  Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 11:10 am  Leave a Comment  

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